Shimane: Rural Japan

Situated in the Sea of Japan, to the north of Shimane Prefecture (south-west of mainland Honshu), the Oki Islands have a natural and cultural landscape unlike anywhere else. If you are looking for a truly unique Japanese adventure, look no further than the remote Oki Islands.

By considering the geohistory of the area, we can begin to understand the sui generis nature of its landscapes and cultural traditions. Developed through a series of stages, the land from which the Oki Islands consists was once part of the Eurasian Continent. Over time it sank first to the bottom of a lake, then to the bottom of a deep sea. Large-scale volcanic activity saw eruptions thrust the land up from upon deep and the islands were brought into existence. They became connected to mainland Japan during the glacial ages, before separating once more and taking their current form. In September of 2013, the Oki Islands were granted Global Geopark status. Geoparks are “designated areas of significant geographical heritage”, an initiative supported by UNESCO.

Bridge to Heaven

The relatively recent history of Oki is interesting, too. Its geographical location resulted in Oki being an important port of call for traders sailing around Japan, and for those en route to mainland Asia, since ancient times. Obsidian (a type of naturally occurring volcanic glass) is believed to have been an Oki export for as long as 30,000 years.

Due to its remoteness, the Oki Islands were a place of exile for court nobles for around 900 years. These nobles introduced court culture and traditions that failed to reach less secluded places on the mainland. The most famous and celebrated exile was the Emperor Go-Toba. Following his defeat in the Jōkyu Rebellion, he was sent to the islands in 1221 to see out his days. In 1331, following the Gēnko Incident. Emperor Go-Daigo was also exiled to the Oki Province, as it was known at the time. However, with some assistance from powerful friends, he escaped to the neighbouring Tottori Prefecture on the mainland. Here, at Funigama Mountain (present day Senjo-san), he built an army, returned to Kyoto and re-took the throne from Emperor Kōgon.

Bridge to Heaven, the Oki Islands

The beautiful and interesting features of the Oki Islands are many and varied, and thus selecting just a few to describe is a difficult task. However, listed below are 5 sites and traditions of particular interest.

Dogō Island

1) Ushitsuki

Ushitsuki (Bull Sumo), is one of the oldest cultural practices in Japan, with a history of more than 800 years. It has been practiced on Oki since the time of Emperor Go-Toba and can still to this day be observed on Dogō Island. As with regular sumo, much of the spectacle is concerned with Shinto rituals and traditions. The island is split into bull sumo fighting sides that contest for honour, not financial gain. The well-cared-for bulls lock horns and push against other until one of them turns away. The bulls are then separated by their handlers and one of them pronounced the victor.

Ushitsuki, on Dogo Island

2) Chichi-sugi

There are many majestic Japanese cedar trees on Dogo Island. The Oki Islands are where the Ura-sugi type last originated, as the species was able to survive in Oki during the last glacial age. One famous example on Dogo is the Chichi-sugi, which means “Breast cedar” due to its unusual shape. The tree itself is a shrine dedicated to a maternal deity and is about 800 years old.

Chichi-sugi, on Dogo Island

3) Shirashima Coast Lookout

Stunning coastal views can be enjoyed from this popular viewpoint. The white cliffs here contrast wonderfully against the clear blue sea and deep green of the pine trees carpeting the coastline. Shirashima is a good spot to observe Streaked shearwater birds and hydrangeas, which bloom until November.

Nishinoshima Island

Nishinoshima Island

4) Mt. Takuhiki

At 452 metres, Mt. Takuhiki is the tallest mountain on the island and is the central pyroclastic cone of the Dōzen Caldera. From the parking area, take a pleasant 15 minute hike through the forest to the mysterious Takuhi Shrine, the oldest structure of its type in the Oki Islands and designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. Built partially into a cave, the shrine is dedicated to the deity of safe sea voyages and has attracted sailors and fishermen praying for maritime safety for hundreds of years.

Takuhi Shrine on Nishinoshima Island

5) Kuniga Coast

The Kuniga Coast is arguably the most photogenic spot on the Oki Islands and is not to be missed. A 2.3km walking trail winds its way down from a height of 257 metres, past various interesting rock structures formed as a result of volcanic activity and subsequent coastal erosion, all the while offering spectacular coastal views. The trail, considered one of the Top 100 Walking Trails in Japan, takes you past a natural rock arch known as the Tsūtenkyō (Bridge to Heaven) and a grouping of oddly shaped rocks called Tenjyō-kai (Heavenly World). Horses and cows share the route with the walkers, adding an extra element to an already photogenic setting. The whole, breathtaking scene can be viewed from the Akao Lookout.

The Kuniya coast, on Nishinoshima

* The Oki Islands can be reached by ferry in approximately 2½ hours from Sakaiminato (Tottori) and Shichirui (Shimane) Ports. The Rural Japan Explorer Tour runs for the first time this May and is completely sold out. Don’t miss out on this beautiful place at this beautiful time of year for 2016 with a tour set for 16th May.

Travelling with a baby in Japan

Congratulations are in order to our Sales Manager Harry Sargant and his wife Sveta, who welcomed baby Matthew into the family on the 4th of April!

If the idea of travelling in a foreign country is a daunting prospect for many, the idea of travelling in a foreign country with a baby in tow is enough to give anyone the heebie jeebies. But don’t worry – parenthood does NOT mean the end of exciting holidays! We promise!

At InsideJapan we have years of experience organising fantastic holidays for parents and babies in Japan, so we know that travelling with kids doesn’t need to be scary or stressful. Plus, as our clutch of InsideJapan babies steadily grows, we’ve been gathering some excellent first-hand experience ourselves!

In this blog post, we’ve collated some hints, tips and advice from our various InsideJapan mums and dads, gleaned from their experiences travelling with sprogs in Japan. If there’s anything we’ve neglected to cover, please don’t hesitate to let us know in the comments below.

Mark & Rie, both members of the InsideJapan team, in Japan with baby Jun

Mark & Rie, both members of the InsideJapan team, in Japan with baby Jun

Can you breastfeed in public?

It is quite uncommon to see women breastfeeding their children in public in Japan, but there are good nursing rooms available in many places. Here you’ll find curtained booths for privacy, and hot water machines for mixing formula too.

If you are riding the bullet train, there is a multipurpose room that can be used for nursing – but you will need to ask an attendant to unlock it.

When we picked Rie’s brain on the subject, she told us that if you have a baby carrier that you wear on your front, you can often get away with breastfeeding completely unnoticed in any public place. This goes for whether it’s on the train, in a restaurant, while walking down the street or even when running across a pedestrian crossing!

Rie also recommends avoiding taking the subway at busy times of day if you’re travelling with a baby, as it can be very crowded and you can’t assume that you will be given a seat.

Rie and Jun

Rie and Jun

Should I bring nappies (diapers)?

We suggest bringing a supply of nappies for the flight and for the first few days of your trip, but it’s very easy to buy more in Japan so you don’t need to worry about stuffing your case with the buggers.

Matsumoto Kiyoshi
If you need to buy nappies, then keep an eye out for drug stores such as ‘Matsumoto Kiyoshi’ for nappy supplies.

What else should we bring?

Our company Co-Director, Simon, travelled to Japan with their young daughter, Florence, in 2013. Simon recommends that parents bringing young children to Japan pack both a child carrier and a pushchair, as he and his wife Bethan found both extremely useful on their trip. Pushchairs are particularly handy, as they are free to take on board most aircraft and you can wheel them as far as the plane door. They also provide a good opportunity for your beloved sprog to have a little nap during the day, or even to sleep in while you’re out in the evening.

Simon also recommends bringing a stash of baby food from home, since although baby food is available everywhere in Japan, it can sometimes be difficult to coax your child into eating the local version! Games and toys are a great idea for the plane journey, too.

Florence waits for the bullet train in Tokyo!

Florence waits for the bullet train in Tokyo

 

What should we do?

The main piece of advice our InsideJapan parents could offer in this department is not to try to pack too much in – take your time, go slowly, and don’t expect to keep up the pace you would if you weren’t with kids! Of course, it depends on the age of your little one – but what we’ve found is that the thing they enjoy most is having lots of attention from Mum and Dad, so in actual fact it doesn’t matter a huge amount what you do.

Ordinary sightseeing and everyday activities like riding the train or visiting a garden provide excitement enough without the need to worry about packing in specifically “child-friendly” activities – although there are plenty of adventure playgrounds, aquariums, theme parks and activities available for those who do want to fit them in.

Interacting with other people can also be one of the most enjoyable aspects of bringing your sprog to Japan, and you may well find that your baby is treated as something of a minor celebrity during your trip!

Max Mundy, offspring of PR & Marketing Manager Jim Mundy, makes friends in the park

Max Mundy, offspring of PR & Marketing Manager Jim Mundy, makes friends in the park

What about accommodation?

Japan is very well geared-up for family travel, with a great variety of family-orientated accommodation options, from self-catered apartments to family rooms in hotels and traditional inns. Do be aware that you will need to pre-book cots or family rooms before you travel.

Some useful Japanese for travelling with a baby:

・my child / baby is x months / x years old
私の子供は x ヶ月/ x 才です
(Watashi no kodomo wa x kagetsu/ x sai desu?

・child chair / baby chair (e.g. at a restaurant) / do you have a baby chair?
ベビーチェア/ ベビーチェアはありますか?
(Baby chair / baby chair wa arimasuka?)

・push chair / can I take my push chair?
ベビーカー/ベビーカーを持ち込んでもいいですか?
(Baby car/ baby car o mochikondemo iidesuka?)

・Bottle warmer / can you warm this milk?
哺乳瓶ウォーマー/ミルクを温めてもらえますか?
(Honyubin warmer/ Miruku o atatamete moraemasuka?)

・Where can I get baby food?
どこで離乳食が手に入りますか?
(Dokode rinyushoku ga teni hairimasuka?)

・Do you have any antiseptic / a plaster?
消毒液/ばんそうこうはありますか?
(Shoudokueki/bansoukou wa arimasuka?)

Anpanman

Jun and Anpanman

・Do you have child minding service?
託児所はありますか?
(Takujisho wa arimasuka?)

・Do you have child medicine for temperature/pain?
小児用の解熱剤(げねつざい)/鎮痛剤(ちんつうざい)はありますか?
(Shouniyou no genetsuzai/chintsuzai wa arimasuka?)

・Where can I find a doctor? my baby is ill…
小児科はどこですか?子供が病気なんです。
(Shounika wa dokodesuka? kodomo ga byoukinandesu.)

・Can I take a picture of my child here?
子供の写真をここで撮ってもいいですか?
(Kodomono shashin o kokode tottemoiidesuka)

・Do you have a cold compress/ice pack?
アイスパックはありますか?
(Ice pack wa arimasuka?)

Max & mum Vanessa sampling okonomiyaki

Max & mum Vanessa sampling okonomiyaki

・nappy / diaper おむつ (Omutsu)

・baby change facilities おむつ交換用ベッド (Omutsu koukanyou beddo)

・baby meals / child meals 離乳食 / キッズメニュー (Rinyushoku/ kids menu)

・Straw/sippy cup ストローのついた乳幼児用カップ (Straw no tsuita nyujiyou kappu)

・Bib よだれかけ (yodarekake)

・Crayons クレヨン (crayons)

・Child’s menu キッズメニュー (kids menu)

・Whole milk 牛乳 (gyunyu)

・Formula 粉ミルク (kona milk)

・Nursing room 授乳室  (junyu shitsu)

・Wipes おしりふき (oshirifuki)

・Cot / crib ベビーベッド (baby bed)

・Cutlery/spoon for my child 子供用のナイフ・フォーク・スプーン (kodomo you no knife, folk, spoon)

Mark, Rie & Jun

Mark, Rie & Jun

If you need any more information about travelling with young children in Japan, don’t hesitate to get in touch and we’ll do our best to answer your questions.

For more on travelling with kids in Japan, see our previous blog posts: How to travel with a toddler in Japan and Baby loves Tokyo.

Tattoos in Japan: Taboo?

So you want to travel to Japan but – uh-oh – you’ve read in the forums that tattoos are a no-go. Thanks to that ill-advised tribal you got when you were seventeen you’re going to be banned from swimming pools, hot springs and waterparks and kicked out of shops, hotels and restaurants. But you’ve already bought your plane ticket! What are you going to do?!

"I knew this was a bad idea!" (Photo: bigtattooplanet.com)

“Damn! I knew this was a bad idea.” (Photo: bigtattooplanet.com)

Well, don’t panic just yet.

Tattoos are indeed something of a taboo in Japan. The reason is simple: for many years, tattoos = yakuza, and yakuza = criminal.

traditional Japanese tattoo

A traditional Japanes tattoo by Horiyoshi III (photo: pinterest.com)

Some history

To give a bit of background on the matter, Chinese records dating back thousands of years indicate that tattooing might have been a part of Japanese culture since the Jomon Period (12,000-300 BC).

Later in history, however, tattooing seems to have gained a certain level of stigma – probably beginning when the Japanese began tattooing criminals to mark them out as offenders. However it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when Japan finally ended its long period of isolation, that they were banned altogether.

As Kotaku reports, this is because the Japanese government was worried that the practise of tattooing might be seen as barbaric by the outside world, exposing the Japanese to ridicule at a time when they wanted very much to be taken seriously. Though this ban was lifted after World War II, it was by then too late for the stigma to be reversed.

Tattooed yakuza members (Photo: listverse.com)

Tattooed yakuza members (Photo: listverse.com)

The yakuza, often called the “Japanese mafia”, have their roots in the Edo Period (1603-1868) and traditionally sport full-body tattoos, called irezumi. The associative links between tattoos and crime thus remain very strong in Japan, and even though the popularity of tattoos has increased in recent years due to Western influence (especially amongst the Japanese youth), your ink is likely to draw a few disapproving stares!

Will my tattoos be a problem for me in Japan?

Not necessarily. Opinions are steadily changing, and the majority of Japanese people are now aware that tattoos are much more acceptable abroad than they are at home. You will even see young Japanese people with discreet tattoos out and about in Tokyo, Osaka or indeed any Japanese city. Nonetheless, hundreds of years of stigma are not easily forgotten (as recently as 2012, for example, the mayor of Osaka launched a controversial campaign to force employees of the city to declare their tattoos to their employer) – so to avoid causing offence we recommend covering up your tattoos if you can.

Places where your tattoos may well be an issue are in hot springs (onsen), on beaches, at theme parks, at water parks and in swimming pools. It is still the norm at these establishments to ban tattoos entirely, and where a ban exists you will see prominent signs informing you of it.

Signs forbidding tattoos at Tobu Super Pool

(Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

If you have a very small tattoo, it will most likely go unnoticed in most onsen (I have a tiny tattoo on my back, and have never been asked to leave a hot spring in Japan). Still, if you can cover your ink with a plaster or a bandage, you should probably do so just to be on the safe side.

If you are heavily tattooed, however, or have a tattoo that’s too large to cover – it is pretty likely that you may be asked to leave by staff.

But that’s not fair! I was looking forward to my first onsen experience…

Yes, it does suck. Especially because these bans usually only affect foreigners and those who obviously have no connection with organised crime. (If a real yakuza member walked into an onsen or a swimming pool, would you want to be the one to ask them to leave?).

Nonetheless it is a fact of Japanese culture, and there’s not much you can do about it. If you are heavily tattooed and would like to have an onsen experience (and we do highly recommend it!), we suggest booking a stay at a Japanese inn with private rotenburo baths, or where the communal baths may be booked out for private use. Alternatively, when my (heavily tattooed) brother came to visit me in Japan, he found that visiting the ryokan’s onsen late at night when most visitors had gone to bed was a great solution.

Meanwhile, if you’re feeling very bold, there are also bathhouses throughout Japan that cater specifically to yakuza members – though we certainly won’t be recommending any of those!

Horiyoshi III: a former gang member and one of Japan's greatest living tattoo artists.

Horiyoshi III: a former gang member and one of Japan’s greatest living tattoo artists. (Photo: Wikimedia.org)

STOP PRESS –

Highend Hoshino Resorts, who run a number of beautiful ryokan across Japan, have recognised the problem with Japanese perceptions of tattoos and the fact that many foreigners have them. It was announced the other day that Hoshino Resorts would allow guests to bathe in the hot spring baths, so long as their tattoo could be covered by a 8 x 10 cm white sticker. Is this the start of a changing in attitudes?

Tokyo vs. Kyoto: Clash of the Titans

 

Just to set the record straight before I begin, if you’re umm-ing and ahh-ing about whether you should visit Tokyo or Kyoto on your trip to Japan, you can stop right away. The answer is simple: you should visit both.

But what if it doesn’t tie in with your holidays plans? What if you don’t have time to do both? In that is the case, this blog post is your whistle-stop tour of Japan’s two greatest cities and their multitude of attractions. I warn you, though, it won’t make the decision any easier!

History in a nutshell

Tokyo

Ever since Japan’s economic bubble of the 1980s, Tokyo has been a byword for high modernity and space-age technology. Think of Tokyo and you’ll probably imagine a Bladerunner-esque landscape of soaring skyscrapers, neon lights and overhead flyovers – and there are certain times (when soaring across Tokyo Bay on the monorail to Odaiba Island, or when standing in the midst of the clamour of Akihabara, for example) when Tokyo seems to live up to its futuristic reputation. But it wasn’t always like this.

Tokyo began life as a small fishing village called Edo (meaning “estuary”). Fortified by the Edo clan in the late 12th century, it boasted a castle by 1457, and was chosen to become the centre of the military government of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (the founder of Japan’s most powerful shogunate) in 1603. Over the course of the long and peaceful Edo Period (1603-1868) to which it gave its name, the city of Edo became one of the largest and most populous cities in the world: Japan’s capital in all but name.

In 1867 the last Tokugawa shogun was overthrown, and in 1869 the young Emperor Meiji moved his imperial capital from Kyoto to Edo – renaming it Tokyo (meaning “eastern capital”).

In the 20th century, Tokyo suffered two major catastrophes: the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which killed 140,000, and World War II, which saw the city’s population dwindle from 6.7 million to just 2.8 million. Both events wrought widespread destruction on the mainly wooden buildings of the city.

Following the war, Tokyo defied all expectations to make a spectacular recovery, culminating in the economic bubble of the 1980s, which brought the breakneck development and massive building projects that made Tokyo what it is today.

Asakusa district, Tokyo

Asakusa district, Tokyo

Kyoto

Often posited as the yin to Tokyo’s yang, the city of Kyoto is considered by many to be the custodian of Japan’s traditional culture – with a beautiful temple, shrine or garden seemingly hidden behind every corner and sliding door. This reputation is the legacy of more than a millennium as Japan’s imperial capital, which, as you might expect, left the city with an incredible repository of cultural and historical treasures.

Kyoto (or Heian-kyo, as it was originally known) was established as imperial capital by Emperor Kammu in 794, inaugurating the Heian Period (794-1159) of Japanese history. The city was based on the grid-style capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an) in China, and remained the political as well as the cultural heart of the country until power shifted to Kamakura in 1185.

Despite suffering destruction in various conflicts over the centuries, Kyoto was spared bombing during WWII and survives today in better condition and with more pre-war buildings than most Japanese cities.

Kyoto’s reputation as historical treasure-hoard leads many first-time visitors to expect a quaint, wood-panelled town with quiet, traditional streets – but don’t be fooled. Kyoto did not escape from modernisation unscathed, and today you will find a bustling, modern city that hides its cultural gems beneath a veneer of concrete, steel and glass.

Kyoto Station area

Kyoto Station area

See and do

Tokyo

Tokyo has pretty much everything, if I’m honest. The way the city grew over the years to absorb neighbouring towns means that there is no one “city centre”, but a number of different centres, each with its own character and attractions.

Shinjuku is the entertainment and business hub, packed with skyscrapers; Akihabara “electric town” is the home of flashing neon, Maid Cafes and otaku counterculture; Asakusa is the city’s traditional district, home to Senso-ji Temple and souvenir shops; while Harajuku is the mecca for Japan’s outrageously-attired youths and atmospheric Meiji Shrine. These are just a few of Tokyo’s many districts – there’s also cosmospolitan Roppongi, exciting Shibuya, seedy Kabukicho, futuristic Odaiba, upmarket Ginza… you could stay in Tokyo for years and feel as though you haven’t seen it all.

What are the highlights? Of course, that’s a very subjective question – and in a city that offers so much, you could choose almost anything. These are a handful of great sights and experiences to start with:

Tsukiji Fish Market – the largest seafood market in the world, Tsukiji welcomes tourists every morning for the tuna auctions and fascinating main market. Go now, as it’s due to move to a new location soon – and will stop accepting visitors!

Golden Gai – hidden in the middle of Shinjuku, Golden Gai is a totally unexpected slice of old Edo slap-bang in the skyscraper district. With just six narrow alleyways groaning with over 200 tiny clubs and eateries, bar-hopping here is an unmissable Tokyo experience in my book.

Hamarikyu Gardens – Sipping green tea at the teahouse in the serene centre of Hamarikyu Gardens, quite literally an oasis at the heart of the metropolis, is a definite must. Even Prince William thinks so!

Tokyo Skytree – Tokyo’s 634m Skytree is the tallest tower in the world, and the views from the top are incomparable. If you’re strapped for cash, however, you can take in your surroundings for free from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

Senso-ji Temple – Located at the heart of Asakusa, Tokyo’s most traditional district, the bright red Senso-ji is the city’s oldest temple. Be sure to wander the surrounding market stalls and grab a bite to eat from a roadside stand!

Studio Ghibli Museum – For fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpieces, the Studio Ghibli Museum in the Tokyo suburbs is a must-visit.

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Kyoto

What’s to see in Kyoto? Temples, temples, temples. And maybe a garden or two….so much more!

A visit to Kyoto is a chance to see some of Japan’s finest historical architecture, and with over 2,000 temples and shrines to choose from – we’re sure the city won’t disappoint! If you get tired of temples, moreover, there is plenty more to keep you busy, from a rickshaw ride through the bamboo groves of Arashiyama to a morning spent sampling the delights of Nishiki food market. Here are just a few of Kyoto’s highlights:

Fushimi Inari Shrine – my own personal favourite, Fushimi Inari’s tunnels of red torii gates have been immortalised in countless travellers’ photographs and are even more impressive in the flesh.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple – Located on a hillside above the city, drinking from one of Kiyomizu’s three streams is said to improve your luck in either brains, love or money.

Kinkaku-ji Temple – This golden pavilion at the centre of a lake is one of Kyoto’s most famous sights. It’s even more beautiful in the snow, as I found out last winter.

Ryoan-ji Temple – Japan’s most famous Zen rock garden – Ryoan-ji is most definitely not more beautiful in the snow. As I found out last winter.

Nijo Castle – Quite unlike an ordinary Japanese samurai castle, Nijo is famous for its “nightingale floors”, which squeak to warn the inhabitant of intruders.

Gion – Gion is Kyoto’s traditional teahouse district, home to the city’s elusive geisha population. InsideJapan Tours can arrange for you to have a private audience with a trainee geisha – a truly rare and privileged experience!

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Day trips

It’s not just what’s in the city that counts – it’s also the side trips you can make as part of your stay. For me, Kyoto really takes the biscuit in terms of nearby attractions, but many of my colleagues would insist that Tokyo wins! Decide for yourself…

Tokyo

Nikko – Perhaps the best side-trip from Tokyo is Nikko, a national park that’s home to a shrine and temple complex built in honour of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Kamakura – A small city that once served as Japan’s de facto capital, Kamakura is famous for its lovely beaches and giant bronze Buddha.

Hakone – Japan’s most popular hot spring resort, located in the shadow of Mount Fuji. A great place to stay in a traditional ryokan inn.

Tokyo Disney – Boasting Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, if you’re after a Disney fix in Tokyo you’ll be spoilt for choice.

Kyoto

Mount Koya – Though you could just about do Koya in a day from Kyoto, an overnight stay is much better. This atmospheric mountaintop temple community is my favourite place in all Japan, and a great chance to stay the night at a temple lodging!

Nara – One of Japan’s ancient capitals, Nara boasts a wide open park, a resident population of friendly deer, the largest wooden building in the world and an amazing giant Buddha, too.

Osaka – Big, brash, bold Osaka is one of Japan’s most exciting cities, and is known for its colourful Nanba district and delicious street food. Universal Studios Japan is also located here.

Himeji – Just a short hop on the Shinkansen line is Himeji, home to Japan’s largest and most impressive original castle – recently reopened after a five-year facelift!

This is just the tip of the iceberg of things that can be done with a little time and inclination in Tokyo and Kyoto. Already I’ve rambled on longer than I should, and without even touching on food, nightlife, museums, transport, accommodation…

Brief as it is, I hope this short introduction will help you understand a little of the character of Tokyo and Kyoto, and why these are indispensable destinations on any Japan itinerary!

Making Sense Of The Tokyo Metro

Tkyo Subway

You see that spaghetti dinner up there? That’s the map for Tokyo’s subway system, Tokyo Metro. Although it may look daunting at first glance, with a little explanation (and a lot of pictures) you’ll be riding the underground like a true Tokyoite in no time!

First off, let’s learn a bit about the subway situation in the big city. There are two main subway operators in Tokyo: the Tokyo Metro and the government-owned Toei subway. Altogether, these two operators combine to make 290 stations on 13 separate lines. With over six million passengers per day, sometimes the carriages can get pretty packed.

And this is before the rush...

And this is before the rush…

Wait, TWO different operators, you say? Doesn’t that confuse things even more, you wonder? Has Tokyo gone mad, you exclaim?!
Well, you’re correct on all accounts. Both the Tokyo Metro and the Toei subway form completely separate networks, and the tickets procured from one will not work on the other. Fares can be different, and to transfer from one operator to the other necessitates purchasing transfer tickets, further complicating things. As mentioned earlier, daunting, right?

Will the ticket you just bought get you home?Possibly!

Will the ticket you just bought get you home? Possibly!

You may, at this point, just throw up your hands and resign yourself to spending a fortune on taxis for your holiday in Japan. However, we’re here to help! Perhaps realizing how intimidating the Tokyo subway system can be for foreign visitors, much effort has been made recently to help accommodate those looking to travel underground comfortably.

You can breathe a big sigh of relief and put away your change purse and calculator watches, as there is another, better way to pay your fares. There are a variety of contactless, RFID pay cards available for purchase at certain train stations. These cards can be charged up with cash and then just waved over the card reader at one of the many gates leading to the platforms. And the best part? These cards work between lines and operators, cutting out the need to buy individual tickets and saving time and money in the long run! Easy, right? And with names such as Pasmo, Suica, and Manaca, the cards are as fun to say as to use.

One of the best purchases you can make on your holiday to Tokyo!

One of the best purchases you can make on your holiday to Japan!

 

Just touch your newly bought card to one of these, and you're in!

Just touch your newly bought card to one of these, and you’re in!

What’s that? You can’t understand Japanese? No problem! Subway station signs are in English, as are most maps and other signage. There’s even an English option on the ticket machines. Once you’ve boarded the train, announcements are in both English and Japanese, ensuring a stress-free, smooth transition whether you’re getting off at the next stop or transferring onward.

And, if you don’t want to read anything, English or Japanese (hey, you’re on vacation, right?), each subway line is numberd, signposted, and color-coded, making catching your train that much simpler. For example, you want to catch the Tozai Line to Nakano? Just take the blue colored line with a “T” in the middle. You’ll be browsing manga and anime goods at Nakano Broadway in no time!

 

Helpful signs in English will get you where you need to go.

Helpful signs in English will get you where you need to go.

Of course, for the tech savvy among us, Tokyo Metro provides a free tourist information app. Using this app, you can search areas by popular landmarks, chart the best course there, and enjoy restaurants and tourist information all in English. And with free wifi available at over 140 subway stations in Tokyo, it’s easier than ever to stay connected. However, be sure to factor in to your crazy night out that the Tokyo Metro does not run 24 hours! If you find yourself out past midnight, prepare to stay out a little while longer, as the trains don’t start again until around five.

I think you'll find something to do...

I think you’ll find something to do…

Phew. That was a lot to take in, I’m sure. But, now that you know the basics of the Tokyo Metro, you can ride with confidence on your next holiday to Japan….and of course, if you are travelling with IJT, you will have your Info Pack to help you along and make you travels easy!

 

15 fantastic onsen hot springs to visit in Japan

If you read my recent post on hot spring bathing etiquette a couple of weeks ago, it might well have got you wondering where in Japan to whip out your new-found skills and cultural know-how.

OnsenIf you were – you’ve come to the right place. The following is a list, compiled by dedicated Japan experts who have denuded and submerged themselves in every prefecture of this fine archipelago, represents our pick of 15 fabulous onsen hot spring baths in Japan. Don’t forget – there are many onsen just as marvellous as these that we have yet to discover, so this list is far from exhaustive! I’ve listed our favourites in no particular order.

N.B. Onsen purists beware – this list includes sento bathhouses as well as official onsen (if you want to know the difference, read my last post). Deal with it.

  • Nyuto Onsen

Located in the Akita Prefecture in Japan’s northern Tohoku Region, Nyuto Onsen is one of Japan’s most famous hot spring areas. The name means “nipple hot spring” (apparently it’s named after the shape of a nearby mountain), and the water here is a milky colour – almost blue in some lights.

Nyuto Onsen

Nyuto Onsen

 

  • Tsuboyu (Yunomine Onsen)

Tsuboyu is the only hot spring bath in Japan to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Given this status, you’d be forgiven for imagining an idyllic, steaming pool surrounded by spectacular views, with water the consistency of milk and honey. In actual fact, what you get is a gloomy stone shack about the size of a commode, which overhangs a river and stinks to high heaven of sulphur. But it’s an experience, you have to give it that!

Tsuboyu

Tsuboyu

 

  • Kurama Onsen

Just 30 minutes by train from the heart of Kyoto, the beautiful little hot spring village of Kurama Onsen is the perfect option for those who don’t have time to trek right into Japan’s deepest countryside in search of a nice soak. For the best experience, head to the onsen after hiking from the neighbouring village, across the mountain pass.

Kurama Onsen

Kurama Onsen

 

  • I Love Yuu Bathhouse

Rustic, traditional onsen are lovely – but the I Love Yuu Bathhouse on Japan’s art-tastic Naoshima Island really is a breath of fresh air. The name is a multilingual play on words, as yuu is the Japanese word for “hot water”, and inside you’ll bathe in kitschy baths decorated with erotic art, pink palm trees, a giant elephant statue and much more. Don’t miss it!

I Love Yuu

I Love Yuu

 

  • Dogo Onsen

This venerable bathhouse in Matsuyama City is the oldest surviving bathhouse in Japan, and is said to have inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away. The current building was opened in 1894, but the spa has a history stretching back over a millennium. Commoners such as ourselves can bathe here in the main baths, there is a special bath set aside for the sole use of the Japanese royal family!

Dogo Onsen

Dogo Onsen

 

  • Funaoka Bathhouse

In a similar vein to Dogo Onsen, the Funaoka is one of Kyoto’s most famous and best-loved bathhouses. Opened in 1923, the dressing rooms are decorated with wood carvings depicting the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (controversial), and the bathhouse boasts a great array of indoor baths, outdoor baths, cypress baths, herbal baths, and even a bath with an electric current running through it! Funaoka is technically a sento, not an onsen.

Funaoka Onsen carvings (photo: Kyo1010.com)

Funaoka Onsen carvings (photo: Kyo1010.com)

 

  • Osaka Spa World

Osaka Spaworld is essentially an onsen theme park, with several different floors offering restaurants, beauty treatments, shops, swimming pools – and, of course, baths. There is an Asian floor and a European floor, each with baths running the gamut from a Grecian bath with columns and fountains, to a milk-and-honey bath in a cave, to a bath with giant fish tanks in the walls, to a Finnish sauna complete with model wolves – and much, much more besides. Spa World is so amazingly epic, in fact, that Claire Brothers of InsideJapan Tours declares it her favourite place in the entire world. High praise indeed from a lady who has visited an owl café.

Islamic bath at Osaka Spa World (photo: Kansaiscene.com)

Islamic bath at Osaka Spa World (photo: Kansaiscene.com)

 

  • Kinosaki Onsen

Located in Hyogo Prefecture in the southwest of Japan, Kinosaki Onsen is a classic hot spring town sandwiched between mountains and sea. Hot springs were discovered here in the eighth century, and today visitors still come here to stay in the beautiful traditional inns and take the waters at the seven lovely bathhouses, connected by lantern-lit wooden bridges.

Kinosaki Onsen in the winter (photo: JNTO)

Kinosaki Onsen in the winter (photo: JNTO)

 

  • Jigokudani Monkey Park

A monkey park? But this is an article about hot spring baths?! Indeed it is, and no discussion of hot springs could possibly be complete without mentioning the onsen-bathing snow monkeys of Jigokudani. They. Are. Adorable. Unfortunately you can’t just jump into the monkey spring, but there are human springs aplenty in the nearby town of Yudanaka Onsen.

Monkeys relaxing at Jigokudani

Monkeys relaxing at Jigokudani

 

  • Hirayu Onsen

A new addition to our list of favourite onsen, Hirayu Onsen is one of five onsen towns in the Okuhida area of the northern Japan Alps. Of the five, Hirayu is the oldest and largest, and is said to have been discovered in the 1560s. We highly recommend heading to the onsen after a long day of skiing on the slopes nearby!

InsideJapan Tours customers enjoying Hirayu Onsen in the snow

InsideJapan Tours customers enjoying Hirayu Onsen in the snow

 

  • Kawayu Onsen

Located on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, deep in the countryside of the Kii Peninsula, Kawayu Onsen is a hot spring town not far from Yunomine Onsen (mentioned above). Our favourite hotel in the town, the Fujiya Ryokan, sits on the banks of the Ohto River and is famous for its giant senninburo bath, carved from the riverbank. The senninburo (meaning thousand-person-bath) is only there during the winter months, but in summer you can dig your own hot spring bath instead!

The senninburo in Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Kodo Tourist Board)

The senninburo in Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Kodo Tourist Board)

 

  • Takaragawa Onsen

Takaragawa Onsen is located in rural Gunma Prefecture, slap-bang in the middle of nowhere on the banks of a river surrounded by trees. This is a beautiful, peaceful onsen in a stunning location – in fact, you’d have to try pretty hard to do better than this!

 

  • Kusatsu Onsen

Though most foreigners will never have heard of it, Kusatsu is one of Japan’s favourite onsen towns. Also located in Gunma (home to Takaragawa Onsen), the town is built around the Yubatake (hot water field) – the single largest source of hot spring water in Japan, providing 5,000 litres per minute.

Yubatake at the centre of Kusatsu Onsen

Yubatake at the centre of Kusatsu Onsen

 

  • Lake Kussharo

One of our favourite hot spring spots on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is Lake Kussharo, the largest of the three caldera lakes that make up Akan National Park. Here you can soak in one of the area’s lovely hot spring baths, or even dig your own from the steaming lakeshore.

Lake Kussharo

Lake Kussharo

 

  • Hakone

Our final hot spring favourite is Hakone, a famous hot spring resort in the shadow of Mount Fuji – just a stone’s throw from Tokyo. Here there are no end of excellent ryokan inns with their own lovely hot spring baths, and if you eat a black egg boiled in the bubbling owakudani it’s said that you’ll extend your life by seven years.

View across Lake Ashi, Hakone

View across Lake Ashi, Hakone

Tokyo Restaurant Review – Takazawa Bar

Takazawa VIP Room

If you’re a foodie there’s a good chance that you’ve already hear of Takazawa. The restaurant, named after it’s owner and chef, was ranked in the top 50 restaurant in Asia in both 2014 and 2015. Takazawa is loved by critics and patronized daily by Tokyo’s elite. In newspapers and magazines there has been more buzz about the fact that Takazawa is yet to receive it’s handful of Michelin stars than most restaurants garner when they get 3 Michelin stars. Perhaps the folks at Michelin couldn’t get a reservation at one of the coveted 10 seats?

Takazawa Bar

Takazawa’s sous chef and world class bar manager – if it’s not too busy you may be able to enjoy one of the best cocktails in Tokyo from the young man on the right.

So when Takazawa decided to open a small eating bar adjacent to the restaurant, it’s not surprising that it made a splash with the Tokyo dining scene. Finally, locals and foreigners alike were able to pop into a bar on relatively short notice, enjoy drinks from a world class sommelier and cocktail artist and eat food from the very kitchen that is rightly considered one of the best in the world.

On a recent visit to the newly opened restaurant I was shown around the VIP room and treated to a fantastic journey through the food and drink menu. As is often the case in Japan, rather than choosing for oneself an omakase style of ordering is the preferred style here; whereby you simply explain how much you’d like and give a sense of your budget and then sit back and enjoy! Sakurai-san (pictured) is a well-known bartender who worked at prestigious venues throughout the city before being picked up by Mr. Takazawa himself.

Champagne

We started off in style with Takazawa’s preferred and personally labeled Champagne, a crisp and ever so slightly pretentious way to wash down the oysters with lemon foam. These touches of molecular gastronomy keep the menu interesting and innovative but there’s also a farm to table concept which underlies everything and keeps the restaurant thoroughly rooted in Japan. Ask where an ingredient is from and you’ll invariably be given an answer that could be tracked down to a single farm let alone a particular region. For instance our second course, which consisted of mozzarella topped with sorbet (shown below) had come straight from Hokkaido that very day – though that was simply lucky timing as much as anything. Moving along, our bartender brought out a bottle of ‘Koshihikari’ beer from Niigata that was made of rice and proved to be the perfect thing to wash down the most beautiful course of the night, vegetable tempura with three kinds of salt delicately patterned along the side of the plate. We found the sakura salt to be our personal favorite and it certainly suited the spring season; the anticipation of cherry blossom is tangible throughout Japan right now.

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Moving along, we found our way to something that could never be served in Takazawa’s restaurant but made for a tasty bar snack. Venison finger sandwiches had been made out of the literal and nominal spare ribs from the restaurant. Though the picture above most assuredly doesn’t do it justice, the minced meat was so soft and delicate that chewing was only necessary for devouring the bread and cabbage; the juicy venison melted. When paired with a truly top quality sake (nihonshu) this course was a nice reminder that the bar is more than merely another outlet for the restaurant, it stands on it’s own with or without the name on the front door.

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Throughout the meal we were served on Kutani Pottery and enjoyed our drinks out of Edokiriko, a wonderful nod to Takazawa’s love of traditional Japan and it’s unparalleled artistry. For every top tier restaurant there is a potter, lacquerware maker, glass blower, carver and artist that is perfecting their craft to make vessels that increase one’s culinary experience beyond the credit they’re often given.

The bar manager at Takazawa Bar regularly competes in bar tending contests and he still considers it his main craft and skill despite the fact that he now spends more time choosing pairings then shaking mixers. If the bar is crowded there’s no chance of getting such a complicated drink but if you arrive early and the bar isn’t too crowded, be sure to ask Sakurai-san to mix you a cocktail – you won’t be disappointed. The slideshow below shows him whisking up (literally!) a matcha cocktail with Japanese liqueur for us. It went down far too easy.

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There’s no shortage of places to eat in Tokyo and there are plenty that are cheaper than Takazawa Bar but if you are looking for a special experience and culinary excellence without the stuffiness of most Michelin-starred restaurants this one should stay on your “must eat at” list!

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The tiny but welcoming Takazawa Bar.

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